SPARC moves to T’bonne DA

By all accounts, Terrebonne Parish District Attorney Joe Waitz Jr. and his staff have the dedication and capability needed to take over operation of a program designed to keep youth out of the juvenile justice system when possible, and steer them to needed services.

But some of the child advocates who helped establish the fledgling Single Point Assessment Resource Center, which until this week was housed on the cloistered campus of the non-profit MacDonell Children’s Services, have concerns about how the transfer of responsibility took place.

The turnover to the District Attorney of the SPARC – for which the parish spends $250,000 annually – occurred as the result of an add-on agenda item at the March 7 meeting of the Council’s Budget and Finance Committee. Members of the parish’s Youth Planning Board, legislatively mandated entity, which conceived and oversaw the SPARC, as well as parents and educators, had no notice that the measure would be discussed or action taken at the council committee meeting.

“I had no idea that the parish council was going to take action on March 7,” said Brenda Johnson, a member of the Terrebonne Parish Children and Youth Services Planning Board. Had she known the action would be so soon taken by the parish council, said Johnson, she would have expressed concerns she has about the future of the program, and what direction it might take.

Another youth board member, Houma attorney Carolyn McNabb, was asked whether she shared those concerns.

“I wish that I knew enough about what happened to give you a quote but I and other board members were out of the loop until it was all over with,” McNabb said.

Other board members generally declined comment on the matter, or gave opinions in response to questions but asked not to be quoted by name.

A matter of critical concern is the move of the SPARC operation to vacant offices at Houma City Court.

The SPARC’s mission statement – created while operated at the MacDonell site and now adopted by Waitz’s new Juvenile Services division – includes a provision that the program will “provide a non-threatening, inclusive atmosphere for those parents and youth looking for information and/or services in prevention and crisis intervention.”

City Court, with its crowds of people answering tickets, where some parents or other caregivers may be involved with on-going cases of various degrees of severity, or from which warrants for them have issued, is far from an ideal place for such a sensitive undertaking, some advocates suggest.

Placement of the program in City Court, at cost of zero, eliminates rent payments totaling $48,000 annually to MacDonell, Parish President Gordon Dove said.

The program was modeled after similar efforts in Calcascieu and Jefferson parishes to more effectively meet the needs of youngsters who display behavioral problems but may be acting out due to problems at home, mental health issues, or other root causes. In Terrebonne Parish those children often end up in the Juvenile Detention Center, with stays averaging around nine days. SPARC enables a virtual village that can help parents provide what is needed for a child before he or she offends, and also to deal with juvenile offenders in a humane and productive manner.

The initial $250,000 for SPARC was proposed by former Parish President Michel Claudet, and approved by the Parish Council. Created by the youth board and steered through a committee of some of its members, SPARC was always understood to have been a “foster child” that would eventually be operated by some other entity, such as a parish office of juvenile services. The District Attorney created a juvenile services division, though the proposal was never presented to the youth board. Some of the founding board members are nervous about that entity being operated by prosecutors.

SPARC has two operating missions, one for pre-trial diversion of youngsters once they face a criminal charge, to minimize or halt their contact with the juvenile justice system. That is referred to as the “back-door” of SPARC. Intervention is different, and is referred to as the “front door” of SPARC, a discrete process used by parents, the school system or other caregivers seeking assistance and guidance for a child before an arrest or other official referral occurs.

The child who won’t stop blowing spitballs, who will not listen to a parent, who verbally disrupts classes or otherwise acts out is a prime candidate for the “front door.”

The logic is that by obtaining services before handcuffs or summonses enter the picture, the need for such action, and the potential that a child who is likely not any kind of a criminal, is not placed in contact with more troubled youth, or labeled as delinquent.

“The idea is to keep the children, the ones from the front door and the ones from the back door, to come into contact,” Johnson said.

Advocates adhering to this philosophy say the City Court venue could defeat this purpose.

One of the problems child advocates are trying to address is that a child placed on probation as the result of status offenses can, under certain circumstances, be formally arraigned and end up in juvenile detention.

The distinction may appear academic to some. But for child advocates it is day and night.

Det. Jerry Bergeron, a Sheriff’s Office juvenile officer, said he has seen the negative results of putting non-threatening offenders into juvenile detention.

“Little Johnny who has just made a goofy decision and has never been in trouble before is sitting there in detention with someone who is a serious offender,” Bergeron told The Times last year. “Little Johnny gets out and the serious offender gets out and then they’re hanging out together.”

After the SPARC was created a year ago, City Court Judge Matt Hagen, who oversees juvenile cases, issued a letter to law enforcement agencies that some advocates saw as a spoke in the wheel of the program.

Juveniles on probation or with court matters pending, the judge said, should not be referred to the SPARC. Officers coming in contact with such children were requested to call the court’s juvenile department during business hours or, if after that, the next day. If the contact occurred on a weekend the call should be made the next available business day. Waitz said he saw no problem with the directive. A spokesman for Hagen said it was simply a matter of the judge wishing to be in the loop. Referrals without the supervision of the juvenile court or the knowledge of the judge or his staff could, it was determined, undermine the court’s authority. Some – though not all – youth board members saw the directive as a threat to the SPARC’s basic tenets.

These are among the matters that might have come to the Parish Council’s attention when stewardship of the SPARC was turned over to the District Attorney, had advocates been given notice and addressed its members.

Asked why the turnover was done so rapidly and in a matter that precluded public comment council members – some of whom being recently elected, admit not being up to speed on the intricacies of the SPARC – deferred to the Parish President, who presented the item for council consideration.

“The program was already being run by the DA’s office,” Dove said, noting that the operating agreement with MacDonell was expiring and that time was of the essence. Waitz, he said, informed him that Judge Hagen approved of the turnover as well. Dove also said that if the operation by the district attorney does not meet parish government expectations, the program can always be taken back.

Kevin Champagne, director of MacDonell, said that his board would likely have had no objection to the district attorney’s office running the program on its campus. But his opinion on the matter was not sought.

The SPARC committee of the youth board met at City Court on March 7 at Noon, and examined the proposed new quarters. The committee voted that it approved the District Attorney’s takeover, although that vote was not binding on the full youth board. The item was placed on the Parish Council agenda that afternoon, but committee members were not informed that this would occur. When the council met, only one member had a question.

Councilman Gerald Michel asked for further explanation of the resolution on which he was about to vote and the council committee’s chairwoman, Councilwoman Arlanda Williams, said it was simply a matter of changing jurisdiction.

The council voted to allow the late-filed agenda item and voted to approve it.

When told that some youth committee members had concerned, Williams said it is still not too late for them to comment at any upcoming council meetings.

“I still don’t think it is too late and they can come before the council and fill out a speaker card,” Williams said. “We are in a position where we can address some of the issues of the youth board members. I have not received any phone calls about it, but there is still an opportunity, and we can still identify issues that need addressing and correct those issues.” •

Terrebonne Parish is building a better way to help young people in trouble or close to being in trouble. But the solution, like the youngsters, is experiencing growing pains.FILE Houma City Court, once a federal branch courthouse, is where juvenile matters are heard. It is now the new home for the parish’s SPARC Program. Prior to Monday, the program was housed at the MacDonell youth center.JOHN DESANTIS | THE TIMESTerrebonne Parish Council members voted to transfer operation of the SPARC program from parish government to the District Attorney’s office with no discussion or public input.KARL GOMMEL | THE TIMES